A summary of a short Larkin poem
‘Going’, originally titled ‘Dying Day’, is one of Philip Larkin’s earliest mature poems, written in 1946 and published in his 1955 volume The Less Deceived. At once plain-spoken and strangely elusive, ‘Going’ is a lyric about one of the most common themes of Larkin’s poetry: death. You can read ‘Going’ here; below is our analysis of it.
In ten unrhymed lines, ‘Going’ explores death without ever mentioning it by name, instead referring to it, slightly elliptically, as ‘an evening’ that is ‘coming in’. Immediately we have a contrast: something is ‘coming’ but, as the title makes clear, something is also ‘going’: life itself.
In summary, ‘Going’ uses the metaphor of the coming evening – an evening which ‘lights no lamps’ because there is no hope of staving off this darkness, the darkness of death. As what is effectively Larkin’s last mature poem, ‘Aubade’, would make clear over 30 years later, mankind can do nothing to stave off the inevitability of death.
In the second stanza of ‘Going’, Larkin refers to this coming evening as silk-like at a distance – in other words, when we’re young and the prospect of death and extinction is a long way off, we don’t mind thinking about it, and it holds few terrors. But once we have begun to feel death upon us – like a sort of sheet or duvet – later in life, the thought brings no comfort. This is one of the more baffling moments in this poem: why would the prospect of death be expected to bring any comfort? Well, death is also a release, an escape from the hardships of life; Larkin is possibly suggesting here that, the older one gets, the less convinced one becomes by this argument that death is a blessed release, like the idea of simply climbing into bed for a long, peaceful sleep (that duvet again).
In the third and fourth stanzas, Larkin’s mood switches to interrogative: a series of three questions bring in first the image of a tree binding the earth to the sky – that is, something that connects the earthly to the ethereal, or, we might say, life to death – then the idea of something felt under the hands, but also on top of them, weighing them down. Death has become a heavy weight that seems to arrest the speaker’s ability to act: the very thought of it seems to paralyse, or, as ‘Aubade’ would have it decades later, ‘to hold and horrify’. It is in this poem that Larkin first employs one of his favourite rhetorical devices: that of ending his poem with a single standalone line, that forms a stanza all by itself. He would repeat this technique in, among others, ‘Absences’, ‘I Remember, I Remember’, ‘The Explosion’, ‘The Card-Players’, and ‘The Building’. This device has the effect of drawing attention, in ‘Going’, to this final question, and to the growing sense of uncertainty the speaker feels about death, and what remains of his life. (It should be added that Larkin was only 23 when he wrote this poem!)
‘Going’ shares a number of features with another short poem of Philip Larkin’s, ‘Days’, written seven years later and also just ten lines long. As well as the brief one-word title, both poems also share an image, that of something/someone moving across/over ‘the fields’, as well as the use of rhetorical questions. Both are also short, unrhymed, almost Imagist meditations on the big stuff: life and death. Although analysis of such a poem may seem unnecessary, the imagery remains elusive, even puzzling. What do you make of those final questions about the speaker’s hands?
Image: Larkin with Gin & Tonic, 1961; photographer unknown. First published in Selected Letters, edited by Anthony Thwaite. Via Simon K on Flickr (share-alike licence).